Thailand has long been a top travel destination. From beach lovers to backpackers to digital nomads, I used to wonder how a place with a reputation for heat and sleaze could be so popular with seemingly everyone?
Now, I understand. Consider me convinced.
I was, at best, neutral and even slightly skeptical about Thailand before we arrived, so what exactly did this wary traveler encounter that changed her opinion?
Here are eight reasons.
Number One: The Food
I've always enjoyed Thai cuisine in the US, so I didn't think I would have any problems, but little did I know just how much I would love it. Delicious, healthy AND cheap, it's my version of the holy grail.
That first encounter was not love at first sight, however. The bowl of Tom Yum Goong soup looked and smelled delicious... until I took my first bite. Immediately, my tongue exploded into flames and my throat felt like it had just received a karate chop. I tried to bite down only to discover I had a mouthful of woody pulp. I very inelegantly opened my mouth and let the entire lot fall unceremoniously back into the bowl.
When I took a cooking class later in the week, we visited the fresh vegetable market. The chef showed us the strange-looking ingredients for Tom Yum Goong and advised that they aren't meant to be eaten, but are strictly for flavor. You eat the shrimp and broth, but the kaffir lime leaves, galangal (Thai ginger), bird's eye chillies, finger root and lemongrass are all meant to stay in the bowl. Turns out, it was a super spicy bird's eye chili and a bunch of woody lemongrass that I ended up spitting out.
Once I knew how (and what) to eat, however, I couldn't stop. I started the day with Khao Tom for breakfast (rice soup with ground pork) and a couple hours later, moved on to coconut chicken soup, green Thai curry or pad Thai. But the one dish I couldn't get enough of was Khao Soi, a northern Thai curry noodle soup that is served with either chicken or pork and topped with crunchy noodles. It's killing me that I can't go out and get a bowl right now.
Then, there was the fresh fruit. I definitely tried some new exotic varieties- dragonfruit, jackfruit, rose apples and durian to name a few, but I probably ate my weight in fresh pineapple, pomelo and... mango. The mango of Thailand is the food I will miss the most, and the mango-containing dessert of my dreams: mango sticky rice. I can't explain it, but the combination of the coconut-y sticky rice with the tart sweetness of mango is sheer perfection.
Besides the tastiness of the food, it is EVERYWHERE. I mean, you can't walk two feet without bumping into a restaurant, street cart or fresh fruit peddler. I've heard Thais have four meals per day so I guess that explains why it appears 50% of the population is engaged in some sort of foodservice operation.
And just when I thought I was safe from becoming completely unhinged by my obsession when leaving the country, this stared me down in the Bangkok airport.
I tried one and now I'm hooked. Damn you to hell, DQ.
Number Two: The Night
Nights in Thailand help me forgive the transgressions of day.
It's as though every annoying thing magically transforms into something romantic. The oppressive heat becomes a warm and energizing hug. The street grime and tired buildings become a clean and glittering skyline. The loud chaos of people, tuk tuks and motorbikes becomes a pleasant soundtrack to your evening's activities.
Average blog writers metamorphose into wannabe poets.
Beyond literary inspiration, night is truly the best time to be in Thailand. Specifically, the entertainment extravaganza that are street markets brings everyone- tourist and local alike- together for people watching, gossip, shopping and eating. In the soft light and even softer heat, everyone is looking and feeling good and the buzzy vibes and smiles are contagious.
Number Three: The People
Despite the tropical heat and spicy food, Thais have to be some of the chillest peeps on the planet. There is definitely a laid back 'live and let live' attitude which explains why even in conservative Asia, Thailand is accepting of the LGBT community, including the famous 'ladyboys'. In addition to their tolerance, I discovered they are also super friendly, considerate and respectful.
From the approachable staff at restaurants and train stations to queueing at the light rail stations to bowing when thanking you, Thai people have a civilized society that puts 'Minnesota Nice' to shame. Respect is contagious and even foreigners can't help but adopt these virtues- we didn't encounter a single ugly scene in an entire month.
Oh, and bowing while saying 'hello', 'please', and 'thank you' in Thai will certainly help endear yourself to the local people.
Khob Khun Kaaaa!
Number Four: The Culture
I'm embarrassed to say that my impression of Thailand prior to visiting was a bit on the tawdry side. I couldn't have been more wrong. Bangkok is definitely not one big sin town and I was pleasantly surprised how very little sleaze I saw (granted, we didn't seek it out).
Thailand is a magnificent fusion of modern secular and traditional Buddhist values. Countless fashionable malls and high rise offices live side by side amongst the sidewalk shrines and ornate temples.
The malls are unbelievable. First, there are so many of them. There is always something going on, some sort of entertainment. One day when we did our mall tour, there was a Japanese pop music showcase with live acts throughout the day and long queues for autographs and photo ops.
The rise of contemporary culture doesn't appear to be affecting the level of Buddhist devotion. The ubiquitous makeshift shrines on nearly every street corner had just as many offerings of flowers, fruit, and incense as magnificent temples.
I found the Thai embrace of secular and spiritual very inspiring!
Number Five: The Beach
Well, maybe, but my experience in the sun and surf of Thailand was in a class by itself.
Clear, warm water, soft sand, night cocktails while sitting on the beach on overstuffed pillows, and fresh cut fruit every afternoon, are a few of the reasons Thailand deserves all of its beach holiday accolades.
On top of this, the prices can't be beat. We stayed on Bophut Beach at a mid-range Western resort with three pools and included breakfast buffet for $55 per night.
Number Six: The Cost of Living
I was gobsmacked that we lived so well on so little. Understandably, this is the biggest reason Thailand is the number one digital nomad destination around. If you are paid your home country's salary and live in Thailand, life is very good, indeed.
Even if you are 'budget with some comfort' travelers like us, we had no problem finding beautiful, yet well-priced accommodations. Our apartments between Bangkok and Chiang Mai averaged $38 per night and all had a pool and gym.
Thailand is one of few places where eating out is actually the cost-effective thing to do. Our cooking facilities were slightly limited, and buying groceries seemed expensive and inefficient compared to walking around the corner and ordering two delicious plates of food for 100 baht (around $3 USD). Our food bill was between $10-$15 per day as we spent a lot on fresh fruit and the occasional Western-style salad when we felt like we needed more 'roughage.'
We did spend a bit more on transport than the average traveler because we wanted to see more of the country being our first visit. Our day train tickets to Chiang Mai (in the north) were $18 each for a one-way 12 hour train ride that included snacks and lunch. Even the overnight train to the south was a reasonable $33 which included the bus to Don Sak and ferry to Koh Samui.
All tallied, even with our 'splurge' staying at a resort on Koh Samui, we ended up at $84 per day, well under our $100/day target. Had we targeted one location, it would have been closer to $50/day!
Number Seven: The Cats
We visited four cat cafes during the month and I will do a proper review very soon, but in the meantime, I can attest that between street cats and cat cafes, there are endless ways to get your kitty fix in Thailand.
Number Eight: The Overnight Trains
I know that plenty of countries have overnight trains, but hear me out. There is something about a Thai sleeper train that is just so darn fun.
My favorite memory of our month in Thailand is sitting in a sleeper bunk with Perry, curtains drawn, while we ate snacks and watched Bangkok come to life as we headed south to Koh Samui. From well-heeled Thais in luxury condos to the makeshift food stalls and impromptu drinking parties along the tracks, it was like I had a front row seat for the coolest show ever. We were so snug and cozy and felt a bit like naughty teenagers as we watched the landscape shift from city to country while talking late into the night. I didn't want it to end, but eventually, we made our way to separate bunks.
It was my personal version of 'Some Like it Hot', but without the cross-dressing and Manhattans.
THINGS I DIDN'T LOVE
Because 'hate' is such an ugly word.
Naturally, no place on earth is perfect and there are downsides to every spot, including Thailand. As much as I loved my time there, a few things were less than ideal.
Number One: Thailand is NOT Pedestrian Friendly
Unless you are hiking in the jungle. And even then, you have to share the path with snakes.
For these hard core walkers, it was a huge blow. Our favorite activity is to walk the streets of whatever town or city we are visiting. After a few near deadly attempts to navigate around crumbled/non-existent sidewalks and snarls of motorbikes/crazy tuk-tuk drivers, we gave up.
We were told that unless you are a peasant who couldn't afford it, why would you want to walk when there is an overabundance of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, red trucks, taxis AND Uber at your doorstep?
I attempted a feeble protest, 'Because it's good for you, and you see more, and with all the food I'm eating...' I stopped and hailed a red truck (songthaew), a pick-up truck with benches in the flat bed and a topper with an open back.
Let's just say our Asian mileage count is not at European levels, yet.
Number Two: The Sewer Smell
Throw in rats the size of house cats and I'm convinced the world's worst job is a sewer maintenance worker in Thailand.
Our apartment in Chiang Mai was on a particularly smelly street and there was no avoiding the wafting odor on our way to lunch and dinner every day. Talk about an appetite suppressant.
I probably needed it considering I wasn't walking anywhere.
Number Three: Thai Massage
In the name of 'experience' Perry and I decided to have a couples Thai massage and if it hadn't hurt so bad, we would probably laugh about it now. Maybe someday.
Thai massage combines acupressure and yoga which is supposed to stimulate energy lines, stretch and loosen tightened muscles and release tension.
I've never been a huge fan of deep tissue massage and find I enjoy the Swedish variety if it's not too rough. So, when I watched a YouTube video of Thai massage the day before, I gently requested that my masseuse use a 'lighter touch.'
Of course, this completely backfired, as she began to dig into my flesh as hard as she could. If she sensed something actually felt pleasurable, she immediately went into torture mode. After 20 agonizing minutes of what can only be described as 'calf cranks', I didn't think I could take any more, let alone the 100 minutes that remained. I looked over and saw Perry being twisted into a human pretzel which made me completely lose it and laugh out loud.
This resulted in several more minutes of what I like to call 'the knuckle treatment' to my already bruised calves.
'Oh, but it's so therapeutic and good for you,' I'm told later by the people in my cooking class. 'You feel amazing afterwards.' Yes, you feel great because they have stopped beating you to a bloody pulp.
I took my massage budget and bought mango sticky rice instead.
Thanks for reading!
Next time on Gobsmacked: I Quit My Job to Travel: One Year Later